A report on the IV International Media Forum on the Protection of Nature

Protection of Nature, Protection of Health

For a second year, I was invited to attend a gathering of environmental journalists from around the globe, sponsored by the Greenaccord organization, with some 50 countries represented this fall. For four days, we listened to scientific experts who focused on urban air pollution, climate change and health, chemical and radioactive substances, agriculture, and more. Their findings were eye-opening, alarming, and certainly not what we read about every day in the mainstream media. The report that follows offers some of the highlights.

Dr. Pierre Quibilier, who is in charge of a Health and Environment Linkages Initiative with the World Health Organization (WHO) and the United Nations Environment Programme, gave the first day’s keynote speech on various issues surrounding transportation – which “institutionally is an orphan at the international level.” It shouldn’t be. Between 1995 and 2001, he pointed out, the increase in vehicle demand soared by 76 percent in non-developed countries. Particularly Asia has seen a big rise in deaths attributable to urban air pollution. While China’s low-income areas remain about 50 percent non-motorized, in its high income cities, public policy now broadly favors cars over pedestrians and bicyclists.

Quibilier cited these global statistics: Tobacco-related deaths claim some 4.9 million people a year, while HIV/AIDS kills another 2.9 million. Road traffic accounts for 1.2 million deaths, and urban air pollution about 800,000. Both those latter figures are expected to rise, as transportation and energy demand has grown by 110 percent since the 1970s and estimated to grow another 70 percent by 2020.

On the positive side, Quibilier described the cities of Curitiba and Bogota as pioneers in rapid transit, the latter city imposing a 200 percent surcharge on gasoline to help finance infrastructure investments. Separate pedestrian and cycling networks are starting to appear in another cities and, as another speaker soon pointed out, by imposing restrictions on traffic, London since 2003 has reduced the number of automobiles entering the city by 39 percent.

In a symposium on climate change and health, Dr. Bettina Menne (also tied to the WHO) provided an overview on already-visible changes. In Europe ticks are moving steadily northward. Leishmania, a dog parasite spread by sand flies, is appearing in new endemic areas of northern Italy and Crotia, Switzerland, and Germany. The pollen season is starting 10 to 15 days earlier and, in some regions, even a month earlier than usual. New invasive plant species are bringing new allergic disorders. The intensity of precipitation is increasing, resulting in more flood risks with their own associated health problems. In the year 2000, the WHO estimated that 150,000 deaths annually could already be attributed to climate change.

Dr. Andrew Githeko, of Kenya’s Climate and Human Health Research Unit, began by noting that in 2004 the daily global consumption of petroleum was a staggering 82.6 million barrels, pumping ever more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. The warmer it is, the faster parasites and viruses develop. West Nile Fever, never seen in the U.S. before 1996, began appearing in conjunction with very warm summers and has now been observed in 42 states. In Europe, 12 percent of all ticks carry lyme disease. In the northeastern U.S., a significant correlation has been found between warmer and wetter winters two years prior to a higher incidence of lyme disease.

As for malaria, warm weather means that mosquito larvae can mature in six days now instead of twelve. Mosquitoes then bite and become infected with malaria more frequently; the parasites likewise mature faster. Before 1990, cases of malaria were rare in the highlands of Kenya. Today, those same highlands are seeing epidemics – where the population is highly susceptible to serious cases of malaria because they have never developed immunity.

John Topping, President of the Washington, D.C.-based Climate Institute, described the U.S. as probably the most vulnerable of all the industrialized countries to climate change because of the threats of sea level rise and stronger hurricanes along the East and Gulf coasts, and the multiple stresses to water systems already happening in the West.

Topping also spoke of the fragility of global food security in North America, Australia, and Argentina in particular. The total world grain reserves only cover 57 days worth of consumption. And, by 2050, due to drought conditions, grain-fed agricultural production could drop by as much as 50 percent.

The Climate Institute’s solution is “partly a value change,” Topping said. There are efforts to get church groups and youth involved. “The longer we wait, the more we will be trapped in economic issues.” Interestingly, the leader in moving forward on clean energy is the small country of Iceland. There, the leading bank ($26 billion in assets) is now the planet’s No. 1 funder of geothermal alternatives.

The next day’s session began with an enlightening talk by Eva Alessi, of World Wildlife Fund (WWF) International, about toxic chemicals. Unfortunately, the European Union’s Council of Ministers has failed to approve a replacement obligation for the most dangerous chemicals. Even if safer products are available, producers are still permitted to use the old ones. But groups like WWF have entered the fight, producing reports on the Arctic and the Mediterranean – and conducting tests revealing a “cocktail” of contaminants in the blood of today’s children of at least 20 different man-made chemicals.

She was followed by Professor Asaf Durakovic, director of the Washington-based Uranium Medical Research Center. He’d been a colonel in the Gulf War during the early 1990s, when American soldiers began complaining of feeling sick. Durakovic’s tests discovered they were contaminated with uranium isotopes – coming from exposure to depleted uranium (DU) weaponry introduced by the U.S. (A DU projectile can hit a tank at up to 7,000 degrees centrigade, like a hot knife going through butter).

He describes what’s going on today as radiological warfare. His institute’s figures are that radioactive releases from uranium weapons have amounted to 350 tons in the first Gulf War, 11 tons in the Balkans, 1,000 tons in Afghanistan, and 1,700 tons in the current war in Iraq.

Durakovic’s staff made recent field trips to both Afghanistan and Iraq, taking soil, water, and body samples. In Jalalabad, urine tests found 100 times more uranium isotopes than are normally encountered. In U.S. soldiers in Iraq, “not-so-depleted” uranium was detected in four out of nine samples, and U-236 in seven out of nine samples.

Durakovic also took on the monumental, and mounting, problem of what to do with radioactive waste from nuclear power plants. Drums that weren’t supposed to leak for 100 years are already doing so, in places like Paducah, Kentucky and Hanford, Washington. “Yucca Mountain in Nevada is perhaps a good solution [to put high-level waste], for now, because it is far above any aquifer – but the dry area may not last forever.”

Australia and Russia have proposed a possible global repository for radioactive waste in the earth’s mantle or abyssal plain, but what if the tectonics change? Depositing it in empty uranium mines is an option none of the U.S. western states have been willing to do, because of likelihood of eventual leaks and aquifer contamination. There have even been proposals – “the most idiotic I’ve come across in 30 years,” said Durakovic – to jettison 100 tons of radioactive waste by crashing it onto the moon, Venus, or Mercury. Or maybe deep-orbiting and depositing it to the sun. Besides the ever-present dangers of a shuttle crash, Durakovic said it would cost $100 million to get rid of only 5 tons of radioactive material – with thousands of tons more still awaiting disposal.

“Over the past sixty years, there has been more accumulation of deadly toxins than in the earth’s entire history,” he concluded. “If production of radioactive waste continues at the present rate, our survival is a big question mark. Our biosphere is at the brink of irreversible catastrophe.”

Next day, Professor Kathleen Merrigan, who directs the Agriculture, Food and Environment Program at the Tufts University Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy, gave us the “big picture” on today’s farming practices and their results – along with the ever-increasing trend toward organic agriculture.

First, some of the bad news: Between 2001 and 2003, the U.S. exported 28 million pounds of pesticides that are banned in this country, for example chlordane, which persists in the environment for 30 years and has been outlawed in 46 other countries. Yet the U.S. has so far refused to sign the Rotterdam Convention that would inform other countries about the dangers of such imports.

An “amazingly scary trajectory” is the escalating use of chemicals in livestock production. Two-thirds of American beef is injected with hormones and there is also a “shocking” amount of antibiotic use, in the name of promoting growth. Today, 70 percent of anti-microbial use goes into livestock, only 8 percent for human health. Not a single poultry operation today exists without antibiotics automatically going into the food. The problem is, we consumers are receiving an “over-dose” – and potentially compromising our immune systems in terms of future, legitime antibiotic needs.

So-called “pharma-crops,” genetically engineered to produce drugs, are also on the rise, with 300-some companies now involved in their production. Maize to contain HIV antibodies is being grown in South Africa, for example. Professor Merrigan believes there is strong likelihood of an eventual disaster involving genetic drift and transfer – of pharma-crops mixing with food crops.

Still, she sees a very hopeful trend toward organic agriculture. It’s now a $15 billion market in the U.S., with more than a thousand companies involved, ten of which sell more than $100 million worth of produce a year. The organic market is growing at 20 percent a year, the only form of agriculture that is sound and strong. (The fastest-growing market in the U.S. is for organic milk). It’s being shown that, over long periods, organic yields can out-perform conventional ones.

Yet the U.S. remains a net importer of about $1.5 billion worth of organic foods annually. Only 2.7 percent of American farms are themselves organic, compared to 21 percent in Africa, 30 percent in Europe, and 34 percent in Latin America.

“Unfortunately, our government has not created support systems, or put in institutional buying, such as requiring organic food in school lunch programs.”

Given the fact that nearly three-quarters of the fresh fruits and vegetables consumed most frequently by children and babies contain pesticide residues, that would certainly be a place to start.